February 22, 2013

Inevitably, there are some days when being a supporter of a team hurts. We Arsenal fans experienced that this week. In fact, we experience that for pretty much the entire week.

Let's be blunt. Arsenal crashed out of the FA Cup against inferior competition. Despite a mediocre first half, we dominated the game against Blackburn. To get a sense of how much we were pressing them: 16 corners to two. Twenty-six shots to six.

But as we know all too well, the only statistic that really matters is goals scored. And that's where we came out on bottom. In the 72nd minute, former Arsenal youth player Colin Kazim-Richards scored a goal that can only be described as incredibly lucky: his shot bounced off the ground in front of him, floated up and over Wojciech Szczesny, and agonizingly slowly ricocheted off the post and in for the game's only goal.

Arsenal continued to threaten, continued to dominate, and continued to create scoring chances, but could not grab the equalizer.

Since Arsène Wenger made seven changes to the team, the first question from the press after the game was whether he regretted the team selection. But as he rightly pointed out, there were 11 internationals on the pitch for Arsenal, so it was hardly a teamsheet that suggested he was taking anything for granted. And with a triple substitution right before the goal, it was clear he was going for the win.

The manager made his feelings quite clear. "We were not good enough to win the game, it is as simple as that." He later added, "The top level is about consistency in every single game and that's what we could not show."

So what happened? Captain Thomas Vermaelen was surprised at the loss. He gave Blackburn credit for defending well, but admitted that his team certainly was not blameless. "If we look at ourselves, the tempo could have been higher at times," he said. "We had too many touches on the ball and it was difficult to get through."

For better or for worse, there was very little time to dwell on the loss, and was hoping for a quick response in mid-week. And this game would require a big response. On Tuesday, Bayern Munich came to London for the first leg of a Champions League last-16 match-up. 

Arsenal were clearly underdogs going into the game. To Wenger, who the opposition was, was somewhat irrelevant. "I believe that whether you are favourites or underdogs, what counts is to play well, make a good pass when you have the ball and defend well when you don't have the ball."

And one of the teams on the pitch really demonstrated those qualities well. Unfortunately, that team was Bayern. Truthfully, it's not that Arsenal played badly, they really didn’t. It's just that Bayern played so, so well. The team that has been tearing up the Bundesliga all season put on a clinic and really look like one of the top – if not the top – team in Europe at the moment.

So the 1-3 final score means we have an incredibly tough task ahead of us. Wenger put it this way, "Let's not hide the truth: it will be extremely difficult against a team of that quality… We have to give our best there and hope that everything will go for us and hope that by the second leg we have built our confidence up a bit more to go into the game with the belief that will be needed."

And Jack Wilshere spelled out what Arsenal have to do. "If we score an early goal and get another one, they’re up against it," he said. "We’re not 100 per cent out of it. It’s going to be difficult but we’re not out of it yet."

Of course, with the away goal rule two won't be enough. And three is quite a big prospect. But then again, look what happened in Milan one year ago. As Szczesny noted, "You never know in the Champions League."

This brings us to the upcoming weekend and the visit of Aston Villa on Saturday. Arsenal will be looking to erase the Blackburn and Bayern defeats and focus on the Premier League where they are still in the midst of a four-game unbeaten run. Theo Walcott made clear what the target is from here on out. "[We have to] get back to where we should be and start by beating Villa. We need to be a bit more dominant when teams come to the Emirates."

Wenger added that dropping points against Villa is not an option. He also stressed that his side know what lies ahead. "With the battle we have in front of us, it’s important to recover quickly and we are conscious of that."

Villa currently a team struggling against relegation, but they held Arsenal to a 0-0 draw back in November. If their defense can hold firm against Arsenal's attack, their striker Christian Benteke could be the cause of a very frustrating day. Of course, the medicine for that is for Arsenal to play a direct, attacking game and get on the scoresheet early – and hopefully often.

Is this when Arsenal will respond to the late season pressure? This is exactly the kind of game that a team can really show what it has has inside of them. It could just come down to which team has more fight in them, and which team can prove they have more to play for. Hopefully Arsenal will be that team. A win won't push us into fourth place, but it certainly would be step in the right direction.

Come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 22 Feb 2013